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State v. Spain

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant appeals the conviction and sentencing for first-degree arson.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Minnesota trial courts must adhere to the general sentencing guidelines unless aggravating circumstances warrant a double durational departure or severe aggravating circumstances warrant a greater-than-double durational departure from the presumptive sentence.

    Facts.

    Nancy Louise Spain (Defendant) had moved into the home of her ex-husband, Eugene Letendre, after she had been forced to move out of her apartment. One evening, Letendre returned to his home after drinking and went to sleep. At that time he did not see Defendant in the house. Early the following morning, Letendre awoke to the sound of his dog barking and a two-foot-high wall of flames rising up from the hardwood floor near his bed. After Letendre unsuccessfully attempted to put out the fire, and receiving several burns in the process, he ran to the kitchen and dialed 911. Firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire. Letendre was transported to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation and second-degree burns to six percent of his body. Fire investigators found a partially burned can of charcoal lighter fluid on Letendre’s bedroom floor. Defendant’s statement to police that she had been awakened on the couch by the fire differed from what was seen by firefighters who noted that the couch and living room was neatly made and did not look like it had been slept in. Defendant was charged with first-degree arson. At trial, Defendant’s claim that Letendre had accidentally started the fire with a lit cigarette was refuted by expert testimony, which indicated that the burn pattern on the floor indicated that it had been set deliberately. Defendant was convicted. In a victim impact statement presented prior to Defendant’s sentencing, Letendre told the court that his burned feet caused him daily pain and negatively impacted his ability to work and live. Although Defendant had no previous criminal history, the trial court sentenced her to 144 months in prison, which was a triple durational departure from the presumptive sentence of forty-eight months set forth in the state’s sentencing guidelines. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted review.

    Issue.

    Whether Minnesota trial courts must adhere to the general sentencing guidelines unless aggravating circumstances warrant a double durational departure or severe aggravating circumstances warrant a greater-than-double durational departure from the presumptive sentence.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s conviction is affirmed, and the sentence is reduced to ninety-six months. Minnesota trial courts must adhere to the general sentencing guidelines unless aggravating circumstances warrant a double durational departure or severe aggravating circumstances warrant a greater-than-double durational departure from the presumptive sentence.

    Discussion.

    Generally, trial courts must adhere to state sentencing guidelines unless the trial court clearly states, in the record, the presence of aggravating circumstances which warrants a double durational departure from the presumptive sentence. If the trial court finds severe aggravating circumstances, then a more-than-double durational departure may be justified. Circumstances justifying a departure that more than doubles the sentence are extremely rare. When considering whether these factors are present, the sentencing court “should consider whether the defendant’s conduct was ‘significantly more or less serious than that typically involved in the commission of the crime in question.’” Here, the trial court found the following aggravating circumstances justified Defendant’s 144-month sentence: (1) “[t]he offense was committed with premeditation and with a certain degree of stealth and planning;” (2) the offense was committed with “particular cruelty” to Letendre; (3) Letendre suffered serious physical injuries; (4) Letendre also suffered “significant emotional and psychological trauma;” (5) Defendant’s actions violated Letendre’s zone of privacy and exploited the trust he had extended to her; and (6) Letendre’s alcohol consumption had left him particularly vulnerable at the time of the offense. The 144-month sentence imposed by the trial court is very close to the 150-month sentence reserved for those who commit second-degree murder. Although the prosecution could have chosen to indict Defendant for attempted murder, it did not do so. Certainly Defendant’s conduct was egregious, but the imposition of a 144-month sentence, which is triple the 48 months generally imposed, is inconsistent with the primary purpose of the sentencing guidelines, which is to ensure that sentences are “proportional to the severity of the offense of conviction and the extent of the offender’s criminal history.” Here, Defendant has no criminal history and while the aggravating circumstances presented here are serious they do not justify a greater-than-double durational departure from the presumptive sentence. Therefore, Defendant’s sentence is reduced to ninety-six months.


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